Abdelbaset Sarout, a former Syrian first division goalkeeper who died fighting Russian and Iranian-backed militia in northern Syria last week, loved theatrics, taking extra rolls and jumping higher than necessary to block goals. His showmanship became more measured as he turned into a resistance icon, improvising songs and ballads mixed with subtle dancing to denounce the Assad regime.
Sarout was buried in Idlib on Sunday after a funeral service in the Turkish border town of Reyhanli, where he was taken for treatment after being injured. As his battle-scarred body was being taken out of the morgue his mother ran her hands over Sarout’s forehead and kissed his cheeks.
“To heaven, my love,” she whispered, alluding to the title of a one of Sarout’s most famous songs. Her husband and four other sons were killed either fighting President Bashar Al Assad’s forces or in regime bombardment of Homs.
Sarout’s debut was at pro-democracy demonstrations in April 2011 in his home city. The demonstrations were staged at night to evade regime forces, which used live ammunition to crush the then peaceful protest movement. At the funeral of one demonstrator, Sarout mounted the top of a van and started improvised ballads, with the mourners clapping and singing along, the women mixing their chants with ululating.
“Heaven heaven heaven is our homeland, even when it burns us. Keep the faith my folks, heaven is our homeland,” Sarout sang. The footage could be easily confused with a concert, bar the open casket in front of Sarout.
When the armed revolt broke out in March 2011, Sarout was a 19-year-old rising football star with Homs’s Al Karamah team. Rare national team footage on YouTube shows the slim, long-haired goalkeeper saving a free kick at an under-19 match against Iran. The current national team goalkeeper, Ibrahim Alma, was Sarout's back-up at that game, according to Syrian activist Anas Rabi, who dug up the footage. The Syrian Football Federation kicked Sarout out after he joined the protest movement.
“Sarout was a big name in Syrian football and Al Karamah was a big team. Sarout knew what his defection meant and that the regime was after him with a vengeance,” said Syrian journalist Sadeq Abbara, who was then among the demonstrators. “When he was marching in the demonstrations in Homs he never slept in one place for two nights in a row.”
Sarout often shared the podium at the anti-Assad rallies with Syrian actress Fadwa Suleiman, despite their different backgrounds. Sarout came from a conservative family in Al Bayada in the Old City of Homs; Suleiman was an Alawite member of the Syrian intelligentsia. Originally from the coastal region, Suleiman moved to Homs to join the demonstrations and fell foul of her loyalist family. She evaded regime raids to capture her and eventually fled to France, where she died from cancer in 2017 at the age of 47.
As Mr Al Assad sent tanks to Homs and cracked down on the Syrian revolution, Sarout joined the armed opposition.
“We are finished with the peaceful era,” he said in July 2012.
He was among the last fighters to remain in Old Homs under government siege before being allowed to leave in a surrender deal in February 2014. Weeks before, Sarout had tried to break the siege by leading 100 rebels against the surrounding forces, with the aim of linking up with rebels in the Homs countryside. Sixty of the 100 were killed in the operation, including two of Sarout’s brothers.
"Imagine the determination. You are surrounded by tens of thousands and you charge at them with dozens," Abbara, who fled to Germany, told The National by phone.
After the fall of Homs Sarout ended up in Idlib province, where disillusionment with lack of support to continue what he regarded as a just armed struggle contributed to a brief association with ISIS-linked fighters before he joined Jaish Al Ezza, one the last active units of the moderate Free Syrian Army. His later songs carried one theme: return to Homs.
“Sarout barely had secondary education but he had the unbelievable charisma of a rebel. He chose to go and fight on the Hama front because it was the nearest point to Homs,” said Abbara, referring to the province south of Idlib where Sarout was killed.
Sarout was nicknamed the "Goalkeeper of the Revolution". In Arabic, the word for goalkeeper – hares – also means guardian, but Sarout declined adoration.
“Only glorify the wounded, the detainees and the martyrs. Hats are off only to them,” he said in one of his last interviews with opposition media. “As long as we have one liberated neighbourhood in Syria we are a thorn in the throat of this regime.”
He was mourned across the spectrum of Syrian opposition to the Assad regime, including by the writer Yassin Al Haj Saleh who spent 16 years in regime jails as a political prisoner.
“The life stages of Abdelbaset Sarout spanned peaceful protest to the Al Khalidiya nights to carrying weapons to the jihadist tint after the Homs siege, then distancing himself from jihadism while keeping up the armed struggle against Assadism,” Haj Saleh, who lives in exile in Germany, wrote on Facebook, referring to a Homs neighbourhood where Sarout appeared several times with Suleiman.
“It is the optimal biography of a Syrian rebel.”